Bringing Religion Into The Court
When you’re in a court of law, the only thing that should matter is the validity of your case. Other factors, such as gender, national origin or religious beliefs (if any) should be irrelevant. It would be best if the court didn’t even know about some of these things.
That’s the ideal, anyway. But in Texas, a local judge has decided to bring religion into his courtroom in a divisive way. Unfortunately, a federal appeals court has said he can keep doing it.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Sept. 29 in favor of Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack, who for years has been opening sessions with prayers. Under what he called a “chaplaincy program,” Mack introduces religious leaders who then lead prayers and sometimes offer a short sermon.
Mack insisted that no one had to take part in the ceremony and that people were free to leave the room, but some attorneys said they feared that if they walked out during the prayers, it would lead Mack to disfavor them – and their clients.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Mack over the religious ceremonies and won a favorable ruling from a federal court in May of 2021. But the decision by the 5th Circuit overturns that ruling. (Americans United filed a brief in the case on behalf of a group of scholars of religion and history, arguing that Mack’s in-courtroom sponsorship of religion is unconstitutional.)
Remarkably, the majority held that Mack’s prayers were not coercive.
“The plaintiffs cry coercion because Texas Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack opens his court with a ceremony that includes a prayer,” the majority wrote. “But Mack also takes great pains to convince attendees that they need not watch the ceremony – and that doing so will not affect their cases. Some attendees say they feel subjective pressure anyway. Yet the plaintiffs have no evidence suggesting that ‘coercion is a real and substantial likelihood.’”
This is simply disconnected from reality, and dissenting Judge E. Grady Jolly had no problem seeing through it. Jolly charged that the majority was naïve in accepting Mack’s claim that he would not act with bias against those who declined to participate in the prayers.
“When litigants enter Judge Mack’s courtroom, they must decide whether they will stay for the prayer ceremony or exit the courtroom for its duration,” Jolly wrote. “If they stay, thus aligning with Judge Mack, the courtroom is closed and the door is locked, leaving only the righteous with the judge. The litigants cannot sit back and observe: they are required to stand for the prayer ceremony. And when the actual prayer begins, the testimony indicates that Judge Mack scans the courtroom, leaving the impression upon litigants that he is indeed judging audience participation despite their supposed ability to abstain without consequence.”
Jolly added, “It is reasonable to believe that nonparticipation will draw his ire: Judge Mack, a Pentecostal minister who has affirmatively stated that he seeks to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, made a campaign promise to establish prayer in his courtroom. He has previously criticized opponents of his prayer ceremony and has acted hostile following a litigant’s noncooperation in the prayer. … For the majority to find that there is no evidence of coercion, suggests, in my opinion, willful blindness and indisputable error.”
There’s a reason allegorical representations of Justice are shown wearing a blindfold: Your views about religion (and other things) aren’t supposed to matter in a neutral hall of justice. They most certainly do in Mack’s court. That’s simply not right.